When Pope Francis washed the feet of prisoners including a Muslim girl on Holy Thursday in the first year of his papacy, quite a few clergymen both here and abroad were shocked by what they thought was a flagrant violation of liturgical norms and a disregard for Jesus’ alleged (but not scripturally recorded) intention that only men be the recipients of this service.Holders of such views and attitudes have failed to grasp the revolutionary message Jesus has communicated to all generations by this gesture --- a gesture that Pope Francis has re-enacted with an equally revolutionary effect. To appreciate this message one must delve into the culture as well as the scriptures of the Jews.
Cultural and Scriptural Background of Foot-washing
In the dry and dusty region of ancient Israel it was customary to wash the feet of guests on entering a house. Both hygiene and hospitality demanded it. Yet an unholy tradition dictated that this service had to be performed only by a female slave; and in the absence of a female slave, a female member of the family had to step in. In fact in his letter to Timothy, St Paul mentions widows who continued to render that same service. No male member nor a fortiori, the male head of the family, would ever compromise his male superiority by indulging in a “menial service”allegedly suited only for slaves and women! Thus both gender and class discrimination marred this otherwise commendable practice.
But Jesus who hosted his disciples to a meal stunned them by doing what he always did: flouting discriminatory laws at the risk of scandalizing the sanctimonious hypocrites. We hail Pope Francis for doing the same.By washing the feet of prisoners including Muslim women, this Pope, too, countered both gender and class taboos just as Jesus did.St Paul puts it well: In Christ (therefore among Christians) there is no discrimination in terms of gender (“male or female”) class (“free or slave”) and ethnicity (Jew or gentile).
John’s description of the event --- if interpreted according to the cultural mores mentioned above--- suggests that Jesus had assumed the posture of a domestic woman-slave in that he removed the over-garment, took up a towel and knelt down before the guests to wash their feet. Observe that this “service” (abodah in Hebrew) which Jesus performed voluntarily out of sheer love was the same“service”(abodah) that women slaves did compulsorily under social pressure. To fathom the spiritual depth of this self-effacingly bold gesture of Jesus we must comprehend the three meanings which the Bible gives to the Hebrew word abodah, which literally means “service”. For abodah could denote any one of the following types of service: (a) voluntary service rendered out of love to other humans, specially to the needy; (b)slavery or forced labour,i.e., a service unjustly imposed on others by loveless people ; (c) Divine Service. i.e., worship of the one true God. The Bible transmits a very profound teaching on justice and love by the way it employs these three meanings of “service”(abodah).
In the Book of Exodus, God is shown to be moved by compassion to liberate the Israelites from Egyptian “slavery” (abodah), and calls them to freedom that they might render unto God the “service”due to Her, namely, “worship” (abodah). The implication is that abodah as worship of God is not compatible with abodah as slavery or compulsive labour. It is only abodah as loving service towards needy humans that accord with abodah which is divine worship. Hence any attempt to worship God without engaging oneself in loving service towards other humans ceases to be abodah (worship) and becomes a mere sheret (“ritual”).
No wonder we hear the Prophets such as Amos, Hosea and others castigating those Israelites who indulged in temple worship without caring for the needy or meting out justice to the oppressed.Theirs was a severe warning that true worship of God (abodah) goes hand in hand with service (abodah) to victims of poverty and injustice. This is the biblical background which explains the true meaning of what happened on that Holy Thursday, as we are about to see.
But Jesus who hosted his disciples to a meal stunned them by doing what he always did: flouting discriminatory laws at the risk of scandalizing the sanctimonious hypocrites
From Ritual (sheret) back to Service (abodah)
Note well that John does not describe the Last Supper (unlike the other evangelists) and, in its stead, he goes out of his way to mention the Foot-Washing, which certainly took place in the context of the Last Supper. Instead of the words “Do this in memory of me” referring to the sharing of bread and wine as his body and blood, Jesus is heard saying, “Do as I have done to you” referring to his washing of their feet. The Christ-event is to be remembered not only by enacting the Last Supper but also by imitating Jesus who humbled himself in the service of his subordinates. . Both the Eucharistic meal and mutual service are inseparable expressions of Love which alone saves.
Then why did John de-emphasize the Communal Meal and accentuated abodah which, according to the Scriptures, is at once worship of God and service to humans? St Paul helps us to find out why. Writing only about twenty years after Christ’s death, Paul expresses his shock on hearing that the Lord’s Supper, as celebrated in the Corinthian church, had ceased to be an authentic worship and had degenerated into a mere rite marred by a scandalous class division between the rich Christians who ate and drank sumptuously and the poor Christians who were starving. A Love Feast without love is a sacrilege! No wonder Paul condemned their Eucharistic worship as a sin, more precisely, “a sin against the Body of the Lord” ! Like the old Prophets, Paul could not tolerate Christians who would take part in divine worship while being discriminative towards those that are not of their social standing.AEucharistic celebration which ceases to be an authentic abodah (divine worship accompanied by human service) is no more than a meaningless “ritual” (sheret), nay, a sin!
Now we can imagine the sorry state of this Holy Meal about thirty, forty or more years after Paul’s lament, i.e., when John compiled the Fourth Gospel. Hence it would seem that this evangelist wanted to re-emphasize the service dimension of divine worship and redeem the churches from their ritualism. He seems to insist that mutual service done in a spirit of humility and equality is an essential ingredient of Christian worship and that its absence in Christian communities had deprived their Eucharistic celebration of its basic constituent, namely, service-filled worship or sacrificing one’s life (flesh and blood) for others in accordance with the Master’s command and example. Foot-washing is recorded in order to remind the churches of John’s time that Divine Worship and Human Service are inseparably associated with each other. What God has put together let no one put asunder!
Let me conclude with a caveat. The foot-washing also risks being ritualized into an annual ceremony unless the churches see it as a divine summons to create Christian communities wherein mutual service eliminates every shade of discrimination in terms of gender, class and ethnicity. This is quite clearly suggested by the afore-mentioned socio-cultural context in which Jesus gave us an example of abodah, Loving Service to Humans as a constitutive dimension of Divine worship.]